According to US President Joe Biden, the new financial commitment will be used on infrastructure, security, and pandemic preparedness, among other efforts.

On Thursday, May 12, US President Joe Biden held a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington. This was paired with a dinner for the leaders at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday.

In this gathering, Biden opened the discussion with a promise to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, and pandemic preparedness, along with other efforts aimed at countering the influence of its rival, China. “We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior US administration official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. We want to make clear, though, that the United States seeks stronger relationships.”

Aside from having Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on its agenda, the current president’s administration hopes that these efforts will show the countries that they remain focused on the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the long-term challenges from China, which it views as its main competitor.

Biden smiling broadly as he took a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House before the dinner with representatives from Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Photo Credits: Leah Millis, Reuters

A New Financial Commitment

According to an official, the new financial commitment from the current US administration includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure—intended to help decarbonize the region’s power supply. On the other hand, $60 million will be allocated for maritime security, while $15 million will go to health funding to aid in the early detection of COVID-19 and other respiratory pandemics.

Moreover, additional funding will help the ASEAN countries develop digital economies and artificial intelligence laws. Plus, the US Coast Guard will be deploying a ship to help local fleets counter what Washington and these countries have described as “China’s illegal fishing”.

Although these commitments pale in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence, as China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries for three years—to fight COVID and fuel economic recovery—last November alone. Nevertheless, Biden is working on more initiatives like the “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither of which have been finalized.

What Happened at the Summit

The summit marks the first time that ASEAN leaders gather as a group at the White House—the first meeting that’s hosted by a US president since 2016.

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to take part in the talks, although Myanmar’s leader was excluded over a coup last year. On the other hand, the Philippines is currently transitioning after the 2022 elections, which was why the country was represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro at the White House. Likewise, ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for a lunch with congressional leaders.

Throughout the meeting, the countries shared many of Washington’s concerns about China. With China’s assertation of sovereignty over vast areas of the South China Sea, it has locked horns with Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia join the fray—also laying claim to parts.

Likewise, countries in the region have been frustrated with the US’ delays in detailing plans for economic engagement, especially since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017. “The US should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the US economically and strategically,” expresses Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Thursday.

With a tug of war happening between the US and China, analysts say that even though ASEAN countries share US concerns about China, they’re still cautious about siding more firmly with Washington—given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

Photo Credits: Leah Millis, Reuters

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